Avoiding Moral Autism

The European Union-Russia summit in the Portuguese village of Mafra on Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which established the institutional framework for EU-Russia relations. This summit will be the last event of its kind attended by President Vladimir Putin in his current position. Thus, it will mark an important milestone and an opportunity to take stock. It is a chance to assess the EU-Russia relationship -- not in the event-driven light of newswires, but in the wise light of recent history.

The EU's relationship with Russia is probably the most all-encompassing and complex relationship that the bloc has with any country in the world. No other country meets the EU as regularly as Russia does for high-level political dialogue. The number of EU-Russia policy dialogues is increasing constantly. Currently there are 14 such continuous dialogues on issues ranging from democracy and human rights to culture, energy, trade, investments and visa facilitation.

These political contacts are underpinned by rapidly increasing people-to-people contacts and by booming trade and investments. Russia is the third-biggest trading partner of the EU, after the United States and China. Around 70 percent of all foreign investments into Russia emanate from the bloc. Russian investments into the EU are smaller than EU investments into Russia but are increasing rapidly.

Trade irritants and occasional disputes would be a great problem if they arose in the absence of institutionalized contacts between Russia and the EU. Against a background of constantly increasing ties of all kinds, I would argue that both trade irritants and occasional disputes are natural.

One of the biggest challenges for a European diplomat stationed in Moscow is to make sense of the discrepancy that exists between, on the one hand, the feel-good factor prevailing among ordinary Russians and, on the other hand, the gloomy image of Russia spreading among many EU citizens back home. In a sense, this is a classic dilemma faced by every diplomat, who has the dual task of trying both to understand "the other," while at the same time defending one's own values. If the diplomat's efforts to understand the other side are too successful, he ends up "going native," which must be avoided. If the diplomat's efforts to defend his own values are exaggerated, he will suffer from moral autism, which also must be avoided.

Whereas the EU has an understanding of the functioning of democratic institutions that is deeply rooted in its own historical experience, many of its citizens have a rather rudimentary understanding of the historical experience that has framed the Russian political mind as it manifests itself today. Lacking this experience, it can be difficult for the EU to understand both Russia's development during the past years and Putin's genuine popularity.

The Russian collective experience is framed by over 70 years of Communist rule followed by 10 years of political, social and economic turmoil and decline. The post-Soviet period included the separatist strivings in both Chechnya and Tatarstan and the country's default on its foreign debt in 1998. The fact that notions such as democracy, liberalism and market economy entered the vocabulary during these circumstances have left an imprint in Russia that the EU still have failed to grasp entirely.

One can question many measures taken by the Kremlin during the past eight years, but one can not deny that anyone taking over as president in 2000 would have had to take steps to regain some of what the state had lost in terms of decision making and influence during the oligarchic rule of the second half of the 1990s. The fact that poverty has been halved and that real incomes have increased by more than 65 percent since 1998 are other factors that explain why Putin -- in sharp contrast to most of his predecessors -- is supported by an overwhelming majority of the population even as his second term is coming to an end.

There are an increasing number of commentators that are becoming increasingly cynical about references to shared values in the relationship. They claim that it is naive, futile and even dangerous for the EU to keep stressing these values. It is even argued symbolically that Russia has left the galaxy to which the EU belongs, and that the relationship can only develop in a "pragmatic context" void of ideological content. I do not share this opinion.

Even though Russians have a historic experience that differs from the members of the EU in many ways, Russia made an ideological choice back in 1996, when it joined the main human rights watchdog on the European continent -- the Council of Europe, with its supranational case law created by the European Court of Human Rights. The incremental and difficult Russian path toward democracy and effective defense of civil rights will continue to surprise the Western eye. But from a broader historical perspective, Moscow's membership in the Council of Europe does matter. I am convinced that the Russian plaintiffs -- many of them ethnic Chechens -- who received settlements in the European court would confirm this.

Last but not least, I think that all participants of the EU-Russia summit have good reasons to recall what a group of former U.S. and Russian ambassadors said about the need not to sensationalize political differences and irritants -- especially as Moscow is entering a phase of political transition. Today is not the time for magnifying differences. In Mafra, it is time for a mature reflection on the fundamentals of the strategic partnership we intend to develop.

Ambassador Marc Franco is the head of the delegation of the European Commission to Russia.